Sources Tell Me… Fake News, Kuwait and the Trump DC Hotel

It is fully normalized now in American mainstream journalism to build an entire story, often an explosive story, around a single, anonymous source, typically described no further than “a senior U.S. official,” or just “a source.”

For a writer, this makes life pretty easy. They can simply make up the entire story sitting in their bedroom, inflate a taxi driver’s gossip into a “source,” or just believe an intern they tried to pick up at happy hour who says she saw an email written by her supervisor saying their manager heard something something. The story goes viral, often with an alarming headline, and is irrefutable in an Internety way, demanding critics prove a negative: how can you say it didn’t happen?!?!?

The issue for readers as critical thinkers is that we tend to feel we have only two options: wholly take the writer’s word for it all, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, left like roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news.

Any follow-up, including a straight-up debunking, is rarely sent viral, as it isn’t as click-worthy. Many sites that do little more than reprint other people’s work see no obligation to assume any responsibility for what they print; that rests with the originator, moving on.

A Political Agenda

Almost all of these “source” stories follow a political agenda, these days mostly to support a negative narrative about Trump (the last of the “pro-Hillary” stories like this, the Hail Mary CIA leaks ahead of the Electoral College vote, seem to have run their course for now.) And the best thing about these anonymous source stories? They are basically impossible to refute. How can you challenge a source’s statement, except perhaps by using another secret, counter, source? You can’t prove a negative, and you can’t do much if the base argument is only It May Be True!.

How to Read Stuff Betterer

That said, there are a couple of things a reader with a few firing synapses still left might do.

The first is to examine the underlying political goal of the writer. If they seem to spend more time “proving some evil” than reporting facts, be skeptical. Be particularly skeptical of a writer whose proved evil tracks very closely with an established narrative the writer has driven before. Show me a (generally conservative) DailyCaller piece exposing Trump corruption, or a (generally liberal) DailyBeast piece exposing Clinton corruption, and you will have my attention. Not necessarily my belief; remain skeptical no matter the source. Don’t stop thinking.

Next might be to ask if what is being reported as true fits with the “is the juice worth the squeeze” test? In other words, if what is being reported is true, is what’s gained worth what is being risked?

As an example, a writer claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his…

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